Holy Land of Caligraphy

The Lunar festival in China lasts for 15 days and finishes today which means that everyone goes back to work tomorrow and hotel prices stop being triple the normal rates. So Shifu, Leping and XiaoMa invited me to join them on a weekend break to Shaoxing, a town located about 3 hours drive south of Shanghai. A last hurrah before we go back to school.

Our first stop was the Orchid Pavilion (although it was the wrong time of year to see any of the actual flowers) which is known as the holy land of Chinese calligraphy and has a calligraphy museum.

I wondered why this place should be so special for calligraphy and discovered an interesting tale. In 303 AD the Shaoxing area was a hotbed of culture and full of the intellectual thinkers of the day. One such was Wang Xi zhi (pronounced Wong she jer) a poet who owned some land around which he build a goose pond. Much of his calligraphy was influenced by the geese who have long, slender, curvaceous necks but who remain proud and upright. He became very renowned for his artistic style.

One day Wang invited some poet friends over for a party which involved drinking games. The games went like this: everyone sat on either side of a winding stream.

A cup of wine was floated down the stream. Whoever it floated to either had to make up a poem on the spot or drink all the wine. As you can imagine everyone got very drunk but that night from the 41 guests 38 amazing poems were produced.

The games in full swing

It was decided to bind these poems into an anthology and as host Wang Xi zhi had the responsibility of writing the preface. I mentioned before that he and his guests were plastered but nevertheless he took up his brush and ink and in his cups he penned a piece that was absolutely astoundingly perfect in terms of both words and brush strokes.

No one has been able to better the piece then or since and even he couldn’t replicate it when he sobered up the next morning! It has become known as the best example of Chinese calligraphy ever and Wang Xi Zhi, the master craftsman. I guess the moral is that you can produce great work when you are drunk!

The piece of writing was handed down through several generations of his family until in the Tang Dynasty there were no more heirs and it was gifted to the Emperor (first husband of my namesake Wu zhi tian) who thought it was so amazing that he challenged people to copy it. Then he requested the original be buried with him! It hasn’t been seen since.

It was interesting to learn how generations of calligraphers were taught the art. They used water on slabs of stone to perfect their technique and it took 18 vats of water before they were every permitted near paper and ink!

Training ground

The museum showed the evolution of chinese characters from the old flowing script to the more boxy, angular style used today. I think that I preferred the softer characters as they seem to have more energy and vitality to them.

Old style of writing

The museum was set in beautiful grounds at the foothills of a mountain range. so we enjoyed some walks in the winter sunshine (It was about 1 degree out of the sun)

There were some stunning old bridges

We had a chance to do some writing ourselves.

I didn’t do all the characters on the palaver I hasten to add)

Unfortunately during the cultural revolution the stone with the name of the site inscribed on it was damaged

I love the interpretation of ‘No Touching’ on the sign

Fortunately the locals at the time realized how precious the stele (stone carving with the preface on) was. So they covered it up with boards. They painted party slogans over them and pretend that there was an outbreak of an infectious disease in the area. That kept the Red Army away and the stone has been preserved.

We each had an opportunity to catch a cup in the stream and say a poem.

I know several but I was told ‘short’ so I recited a bit of Australian doggerel which no one around me could understand anyway!

Apparently this game has been replicated in countries around the world amongst the literati.

Shifu bought us all a HuLu, gourd which represents the Tao with its smooth bell shape. It has a heavy bottom which balances in the earth. It expands like our dantien where our energy circulates then bulges out again to be our heart before sending the qi out to infinity. It is hollow and was used to store medicines to help people. You just hold it in your palm and roll it around, like a stress ball.

After this visit to the symbolic culture of ancient China we moved to our hotel where we were greeted at the door by a service robot who asked if it could help. (we were good)

We were well and truly back in the 21st century! China is a country of surprises sliding seamlessly from deep cultural resonances to state of the art modernity.

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